Friday, June 27, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Chukkat 5774–What a Difference a Vowel Makes (Revised from 5767)

Seven years ago I wrote about this interesting bit of orthography in Chukat. I had an entirely different topic in mind to write about for this year, but upon reflection, decided I wanted to revisit and revise the musing I wrote about this just seven years ago. That seems an appropriate interval.

Our parasha, Chukat, is replete with interesting things on which to comment. We have (not necessarily in the order of the text) our sympathetic magic with the copper servant. We have the strange incident of the Israelites being refused passage through Edom, and simply turning away to follow another route (what makes it strange is the fact that the rest of the parasha and much that preceded and follows it show Israel not avoiding conflict, assured of victory by G"d's presence and assurance. Is it because the Edomites were descendants of Esau?) We have the bizarre ritual of the red heifer. The striking of the rock at Meribah. Miriam's death. Aharon's death. Fodder for lots of debate and discourse.

Yet what caught my attention this year was a small orthographic notation by the Masoretes. Interestingly enough, it occurs in verse 32 - the lamed-bet verse לב of chapter 21. That coincidence enough gives me pause to consider its often overlooked importance. We have here one of those "written vs. spoken" words, scribed in the scroll one way but read another. The words is vav-yod-yod-resh-shin. In the raw Torah scroll text, one might easily read this word as "vayirash" which would mean inherited, but it is read and then vowelized as "vayoresh," meaning "dispossessed." (Even so, the vowelization itself is odd orthography, forcing the Masoretes to note it as such.)  Both are variations built on the same verbal root - yod-resh-shin. Like so many Hebrew roots, it has a multiplicity of related yet different meanings. From this simple root we get words meaning "take possession of," "inherit," and/or "dispossess." That simple fact in and of itself is worthy of discussion and inquiry. Is it a reflection of the biblical notion that we are but tenants on G"d's land? That which we possess or inherit is also that from which we can easily be dispossessed, because it is not truly ours, but belongs to G"d?

The entire verse reads:

"Then Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its dependencies and dispossessed the Amorites who were there." (Numbers 21:32)

In the unvowelized text of the Torah scroll, the scribe writes:

וישלח משה לרגל את־יעזר וילכדו בנתיה ויירש את־האמרי אשר־שם:

The Masoretes vowelize it as

וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לְרַגֵּל אֶת־יַעְזֵר וַֽיִּלְכְּדוּ בְּנֹתֶיהָ וַיֹּירֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר־שָֽׁם

and then note that it should be read

וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לְרַגֵּל אֶת־יַעְזֵר וַֽיִּלְכְּדוּ בְּנֹתֶיהָ [וַיּוֹרֶשׁ] אֶת־הָֽאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר־שָֽׁם



is just, by Hebrew orthographical standards a very weird spelling. As I mentioned, just looking at the raw text in the Torah scroll without any other clues, one might likely assume the word was “vayirash” or “inherited.”

Think of the difference, momentarily, if it were translated as "...and inherited the Amorites who were there." Operating on the assumption that even the weirdest things found in the Torah have a purpose, I began to wonder what this all could mean. (Boy, there’ a great example of an English word with a problem similar to much of the biblical Hebrew. I’m speaking of “mean” of course. As in this example I sometimes use when tutoring students for bar/bat mitzvah: 

“The survey data indicates that most mean people don’t say what they mean, which produces a very skewed mean.”

Unkind. Intend. Average. All from one word. And we think Hebrew roots have too much diversity of meaning (pun intended?) I actually think it’s wonderful that the same Hebrew root can mean (there we go again) inherit and dispossess – those, at least, have some connection. In a religion that for me, and I believe others, is largely about finding the balance between opposite forces or intentions, how great is it to have a single root mean effectively opposite things? Yay Hebrew! But I digress…

It is perhaps easier, as an invading force, to simply kill off the people whose land you are taking, rather than dealing with all the logistics of providing for the native peoples of the land you just occupied? In ancient times, and often enough in the Torah, the Israelites often simply wiped out the native occupants. (Of course, is this really what happened, or simply a fanciful re-imagining? And if it is a re-imagining, why, exactly, would we want to re-imagine it in such an awful, horrible, murderous way? Oh, that's right, we can put the blame on G"d. Perhaps the reality was that the Israelites didn't do such a good job dealing with the needs of the native peoples of the lands they conquered and possessed, and it was simpler and easier for the redactors of the text to simply rewrite history so that the natives were wiped out, rather than relate the whole sorry story of the Israelite failures to deal with the native occupants of the lands they occupied.

Ouch, this is hitting close to home. It is starting to sound a little too familiar. If we shift ahead three thousand years, might we not find todays “Israelites” in a similar quandary? In its 64 year history, medinat (the state of) Israel has been both dispossessor and inheritor. Being a dispossessor certainly hasn't won Israel any points in the popularity arena. Sadly, being an inheritor, and having to deal with Palestinians and others now living with them in the land they have conquered, they don't exactly have a stellar track record either. Oh, no doubt, Arabs, Palestinians and others living in Israel and under Israeli rule probably have rights, services, and possibilities that might not be available to them elsewhere. Still, there's little denying that it's no picnic for Israel's Arabs, Muslims, and other minorities. Israel's neighboring Arab and Muslim states haven't exactly stepped up to help their Palestinians brothers and sisters either. There's plenty of blame to go around.

I'm not here to be political, to Israel bash, or Arab bash, or anything of the sort. I'm simply suggesting that, as "Israelites," we ought to consider what we might learn from this particular orthographical oddity in the Torah, this fine line dividing taking possession, inheriting, and dispossessing. There's something here, and it niggles at me. It could be as simple as understanding that we are all but tenants on G"d's land, yet somehow I think there is more to it. When we go out and conquer a land (and perhaps even when land is given to us by an agreement of other nations) we ought to be mindful of whether or not we want to dispossess all those who live there, and mindful that, if allowed to remain, that we become inheritors of the responsibility of caring for the people whose land we have conquered. And I would remind our Muslim brothers and sisters of the same. When we seek to remake in our own image lands and people we have conquered or subjugated, we only sow the seeds of failure and perhaps our own overthrow or destruction. The world speaks harshly of Israel and how it treats the Palestinians and others, internally and externally. However, this same world seems to largely ignore the centuries old yet still current impact of dhimmitude in Muslim countries, and the impact this has on non-Muslims living in Muslim countries.

I’m not the least bit enamored of the idea of the United States sending back in troops to help Iraq with its impending civil war. At the same time, the U.S. has a lot to learn from this orthographical oddity as well. We meddled in Iraq, and we still bear some responsibility as conquerors. For me, the lesson learned is that we should have never gotten involved with Iraq in the first place. Like the Israelites avoiding Edom, maybe we should have done the same. maybe it is not possible to be dispossessors with also having some responsibility/connection to the inheritors. They are intertwined – just like the variable meaning of the Hebrew root


to take possession of, to inherit, to be heir to someone, to be dispossessed, to become impoverished, to dispossess, to drive out.

That, surely, is a reminder that ultimately we are but stewards of G”d’s land. What we can inherit or possess can be taken away from us. We can be both inheritor and dispossessor. Even simultaneously. It is a reminder that these are two sides of the same coin, and we must treat such matters justly.

Yet it is on a more positive, uplifting note that I want to conclude this narrative. As I mentioned previously, this orthographic oddity appears in verse 32  לב of chapter 21. The lamed-bet verse. The verse of the lamed-bet, the leiv, the heart. If we but look in our hearts, then perhaps we can know what to do - what is right, what is wrong. We can know and understand our responsibility as inheritors and dispossessors. We can understand and sympathize with those from whom we inherit and from whom we dispossess. Then perhaps we can learn how to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom


©2015 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Chukat 5773 - Biblical "Jodies"
Chukat 5772 - Your G"d, Our G"d, and the Son of a Whore
Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What's Inside
Chukat 5764 - Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam

Chukat-Balak 5766 - Community Sing
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop



Friday, June 20, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Korach 5774–Still a Loose End

It’s a head-scratcher all right. Though it has troubled me for a long time, thirteen years ago is when I first mused about it. My being troubled is in good company. It troubled the rabbis, too. We are no closer to solving the mystery than we were before – and perhaps we never will solve it. Maybe, as I speculated 14 years ago, that’s exactly the point.

The loose end, the  question, is “what happened to Korach?” or “how/when did Korach die?” While it may seem an irrelevant point, can we truly say that anything in Torah is irrelevant? (Actually, truth be told, as sacred as I hold the Torah, I am actually comfortable with the notion of declaring some of what is to be found in Torah irrelevant, insignificant, and generally without meaning for contemporary life. Nevertheless, I will continue to mine, explore, write about, discuss, investigate, and argue about all of the Torah, including those parts I find lacking. Cherry-picking from religious text is responsible for so much of the negative impact that religion has admittedly had upon society. I’m not Gladwell, or Hitchens, or even DeGrasse-Tyson - a fellow alumni of Bronx Science, and just a few years behind me - perceiving religion as the bane of society and responsible for many, if not most, of its ills. However, I feel that I must acknowledge that religion has been abused and has been (and continues to be) responsible for problems and issues that plague our society. Boy, this is one long parenthetical aside, isn’t it. As Tom Lehrer said,”but I digress…”)

The rabbis, of course, have never considered anything in Torah as irrelevant. Not one jot or tittle is to be overlooked. Nevertheless, the rabbis found their fair share of head-scratchers. We say or ask “what’s troubling Rashi?” with a sometimes bemused air – but the fact is, there were lots of things that did trouble Rashi, and which he attempted to explain or reconcile. I, personally, find myself more troubled by the places that trouble me that didn’t prompt Rashi to be troubled! That’s a musing for another time. Perhaps even a whole whole book: “What’s Troubling Adrian That Didn’t Trouble Rashi?”  or perhaps less egotistic, simply “What Didn’t But Perhaps Should Have Troubled Rashi?” I’ve added the thought to my Evernote “writing ideas” folder. Which is already quite large. Sigh.

We know what happened to Korach's people (i.e. his family) and to his fellow agitators Dathan and Abiram and their people - the earth opened and swallowed them up. But the text does not say that Korach himself was swallowed up? Where was Korach when this happened?

Later in the parasha, we read that the 250 leaders of Israel who were following Korach and who had brought their fire-pan incense offerings to the Tent of Meeting-they got the Nadav and Avihu treatment and were consumed by fire from G”d. But at the beginning of the parasha we read that these 250 were in addition to Korach, Dathan, Abiram and On. So if only those 250 were consumed by G”d's fire, and Dathan, Abiram and company were swallowed up by the earth, what happened to Korach? It's a mystery. A loose end.

I don't know about you, but loose ends drive me crazy. So I searched through the text, turned to Talmud, Midrash and other sources to see what happened to Korach.

The rabbis were certainly willing to provide some answers. Burt as usual, there wasn't total agreement between them.

The rabbis present us with four basic theories about what happened to Korach:

1.) He died along with the 250 other who offered profane incense

2.) He was swallowed up by the earth at the time this happened to all his household and followers.

3.) Some say his sin was so great he died from both of the above. 

4.)As a result of some other plague that befell the Israelites (and see some of the elaborations

The first is a stretch under any circumstances. The second is simply not made clear by the text of the Torah. The third seems a rabbinical fantasy or the result of too much consumption of alcoholic beverages.

A later elaboration of the third explanation suggests that Korach (and Pharaoh, too) were not offered any chance to repent, as their guilt was so onerous.

In some midrashic and Talmudic sources, we learn that some rabbis believe that Korach's people recognized their sin, repented of their ways, and were placed on a high place in Gehinnom from where they shouted G”d's praise. Yet another rabbi claims to have been shown the spot where Korach's band was swallowed up, and to have heard voices declaring the truth of Moshe and G”d's law, and branding Korach and his followers are liars.

Yet what was so onerous about what Korach did? What makes his transgression so different? As Pharaoh is the other figure cited here, one might conclude that the issue is because they took on Moshe, G”d's favorite, and the only prophet of his kind.

Something is out of kilter here. Our Torah teaches us that Moshe was buried in an unknown grave, precisely so that he would not become an object of undue adulation and worship. And G”d forgives Israel for far worse transgressions than those of Korach. No, it seems Korach was singled out because he took on the teacher's pet. Is that fair? (And, in the case of Pharaoh, did not G”d harden Pharaoh's heart - so is Pharaoh entirely responsible? But again, I digress.)

We know what’s really motivating the rabbis. They have successfully usurped G”d’s (and the people’s) authority and taken it upon themselves to be the decisive interpreters of text and tradition. They saw themselves as the descendants of, and substitutes for, Moshe. So they trot out the story of Korach as an illustration of what might befall those who challenge their authority in the way Korach challenged Moshe’s authority.

The fourth option just represents the people who didn’t buy the first three. Some of them stretch credulity to the limit.

One option the rabbis do not present is that Korach did not die. Though there is one rabbinic variation which suggests that Korach was neither swallowed up nor consumed, but offers no further explanation.

So, are Korach (and Pharaoh) doomed to be Flying Dutchmen, poltergeists, forever wandering in limbo? Just doesn't seem fair.

Fair or not, it remains a loose end. What happened to Korach? I've not yet found a satisfactory answer. It's driving me crazy. I don't think I'm atypical. I suspect most people don't like loose ends.

Then it hits me. Maybe that is precisely Torah's point. That life isn't always neat and tidy, that sometimes there are loose ends, things we may never know or understand or figure out. It's a reminder that not everything in life can be brought neatly to closure. Yes, we can imagine what happened to Korach, and speculate on it. But only G”d, Korach, and the person who commits a similarly heinous act can truly know the end results of such a choice.

Some in our society find capital punishment a deterrent to crime. We suspect that if people know they may have to pay with their life for a crime, they might think twice before committing that crime. Whether that really works or not, I can't say, though the evidence seems to support a different conclusion.

However, I can say that I submit the proposal that perhaps, for humans, not knowing our fate or the final consequence of our actions might be a far more effective punishment. It drives us crazy, not knowing. Gee, if I commit this crime, I have no idea what will happen to me, though I am sure something will and it will probably be bad in the end. That, to many, is more scary than knowing the penalty up front. Think about it.

On the one hand, a vague sign like “Violators will be prosecuted” seem unlikely to be effective. It does not appear to effectively deter a criminal. Imagine now a sign that said “Violators will be punished by spinning a wheel to determine the punishment, which ranges from $10 to execution.” That might give some folks pause. (Of course, the way our legal system works – or perhaps doesn’t work - these days, for some, especially the poor and minorities, justice may very well be a crap shoot.)

It’s an absurd example, I know. Interjecting that kind of mystery into the justice system is quite contradictory to the teachings of Torah. I use it merely as a thought-provoker. Not knowing may be a far worse fate for those of us raised to believe, with human hubris, that we can find an answer to every question.

We don't know what happened to Korach, and the Torah doesn't tell us. And we'll never know unless we ourselves commit acts as onerous as Korach's. Seems to me that frustrating enough a mystery to keep most of us from ever attempting anything like Korach did.

Loose ends are a powerful messenger. Ignorance, it seems, may not be bliss, but the highest torture.

So what do we do? We must accept not knowing. Our own Holy Torah herself says to us that we can't expect the answer to every question we ask of her. And that is stated no more strongly than it is here in parashat Korach. So we must come to terms with not having all the answers. We must give up our human hubris, our fatal belief that our own intelligence will provide us the answers to all mysteries, even the greatest of them all. We must learn to appreciate the loose ends, to savor them.

This Shabbat, and always, enjoy and appreciate the loose ends of life, the unanswered questions. We need not drive ourselves crazy, or give ourselves ulcers seeking answers in vain to unanswerable questions. We must learn to let go. Worry too much about tying up loose ends, and you might wind up torturing yourself needlessly. Learn the lesson of what the question "what happened to Korach?" teaches us: Relax. Hang loose. Chill. Chillax. Let it go. (Oh, great, now I have that song from Frozen stuck in my head.)

Shabbat Shalom,


©2014. Portions ©2000 and 2001 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Korakh 5773 - B'tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)
Korakh 5772 - B'nei Miri
Korakh 5771 - Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 - And who Put G"d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 - Investment
Korah 5765 - Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5763-Taken
Korach 5761-Loose Ends

Friday, June 13, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’lakh L’kha 5774–Do You Spy What I Spy (Redux 5759)

Back in 1999, I was starting work at the summer day camp at the Nashville JCC, and wrote this musing. This Monday, I will begin a second summer doing music for the early childhood summer day camp for the JCCs of Chicago. (In the years before 1999, and in the intervening years between then and now, I have worked at any number of overnight and day camps, including several wonderful years on staff at OSRUI.) I thought it might be just the ticket to revisit these words from 1999

Do You Spy What I Spy

Well, here I am at JCC camp, surrounded by eager, curious young minds. I ask them why they came to this camp. Of course, there is the usual litany of "my parents forced me" but it does warm my heart when a few of them say they want to be here because it is the JCC camp, and they can be with Jewish friends while at the same time having fun.

I wonder what answers I would get if I asked the parents "why did you send your children here?" It is a choice, not something they have to do. Just as G”d gave Moshe a choice with the words "Sh’lakh L'kha", which can be translated as "send, for yourself." According to Rashi, this means that G”d did not give Moshe a direct order to send spies into the land-rather, G”d offered Moshe the choice to decide for himself whether to send spies.

(As a reminder to all, truth be told, Moshe sent “scouts” to reconnoiter the land. It was Joshua, who 40 years later, sent out “spies.” Why we have conflated these two stories confounds me. 15 years ago, when I wrote this musing, I seem to have been suffering under the same misconception, and thus the title. My apologies for the error, but let’s just go with it, OK?)

Why make it a choice? Why “not simply say "Moshe, send spies into the land" ? What is the lesson here? It is an empowering thing for G”d to offer Moshe this choice. Was G”d testing faith? Was this a test failed by sending spies, in the same way that perhaps Avraham avinu failed when he was willing to sacrifice Yitzchak? Perhaps G”d wanted Moshe and the people to demonstrate faith by saying "Spies? Spies? We don't need no stinkin' spies. We have faith that G”d will bring us into the promised land and vanquish all who might stand in our way."

(As a sidebar, there is an interesting interpretation of why G”d offered Moshe the choice in the book "Sparks of Torah." It quotes Ephraim of Lunshitz as saying that G”d was worried that Moshe wanted to send men, and not women, to spy on the land. But the men had demonstrated such lack of faith, such ambivalence, whereas the women "loved the land.")

The cleverness of G”d is demonstrated by the fact that the question of faith in G”d could be demonstrated by not sending spies, or, as actually happened, by some spies having faith and others not. So for G”d, it's a no lose proposition, whatever Moshe decides to do.

So back to the parents of our campers. Parents are obligated, by mitzvot, to see that their children are taught in our ways. But how this is done is a choice. Camp is one of those choices. It provides a unique environment, one that surrounds their children with Judaism. For many children, this is the only such exposure they will get, for, sadly, not many of their homes are shining examples of living Judaism each day.

In any case, Moshe chose to send spies. Most came back with descriptions of a beautiful, but unattainable land, and only two had the faith to believe that G”d would enable the people to enter into and settle the land despite the presence of other tribes.

All the spies saw the same thing-yet brought back very different opinions because of their own bias.

The same is certainly true for all our campers. They will see us through their own filters. So that puts an obligation on those of us who teach and work here at camp.

What do we want these young people to see when they come? A camp flowing with milk and honey, but populated by fierce giants? Or a land flowing with milk and honey, though perhaps with some sour tastes here and there, but populated by warm, caring, loving staff?

That choice is mine and the choice of all the others on staff (then) at the Nashville JCC camp (and now at the Chicago JCC Apachi Village Camp,) and at every other Jewish camp. Though we cannot change the filters through which our campers see us, we can strive to create an environment that makes them want to be here, provide experiences that make them want to cross into the promised land, and present them with an opportunity to feel good about their Judaism. So when they come as "scouts" (campers) into our "land" (camp and Judaism), they will report back to their "people" (parents) of a land that is wonderful, and a place they want to be, dwell in, and return to.

Our camp directors, who are not G”d (but can sometimes be confused with G”d, or confuse themselves with G”d, dare I say), have said, "Sh”lakh L'kha" to us, the camp staff. Send, for ourselves. It is our choice whether to send. What are we sending? Seeds. We are sending out seeds of Judaism, of love, of Torah. May we all choose to send. May many of the seeds we send out take root. Ken y'hi ratzoneinu.

To all of you and yours, a sweet Shabbat. May the seeds you plant this Shabbat and all summer long take root and grow into beautiful futures.

Shabbat shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
portions ©199
9 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shelakh L'kha 5773 - They Really Might be Giants (Redux 5764)
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5772- Cover Up (Redux and Revised 5761)
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5771 - Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat
Shelakh L'kha 5769 - One Law
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5767-Cover Up II - G"d's Scarlet Letter?
Sh'lakh L'kha 5766 - Another Missed Opportunity?
Shelakh Lekha 5764-They Might Really Be Giants
Shelakh-Lekha 5762-Minority Report
Shelakh-Lekha 5761-Cover Up?
Shelakh Lekha 5760 and 5765-Anamnesis
Shelakh-Lekha 5759-Do You Spy What I Spy?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’ha’a lot’kha 5774 – Zechariah’s Woo-Woo & Letting Go

Rolling through my mind right now is the tune “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” from the musical “Damn Yankees.” though I am substituting the lyrics “whatever G”d wants, G”d gets.” I am sure that one of the reasons this particular tune from this particular show popped into my head is because the character of HaSatan, the adversary, appears in the haftarah for B’ha’a lot’kha. It’s a well known hafatarah, and we hear it every year for Hanukkah as well, ending, as it does, with the overly quoted “not by might, not by power…”

Context is everything. Zechariah’s oracle is aimed squarely at Zerubbabel, governor of the province of Yehud, which is part of the larger administrative satrapy called “beyond the river,” part of the Persian Empire.  Zerubbabel, along with Joshua the priest, are the leaders of the first returning Jewish exiles from Babylon to Judah in the wake of Cyrus the Great’s ascension to the Persian throne. Zerubbabel had “yichus” as the grandson of one of the last Kings of Judah, Jeohoiachin. Cyrus’ enlightened leadership gave hope to some of the returning Jews, and caused fear for many now established in the political hierarchy of the province of Yehud (Jews and non-Jews alike,) that an independent Jewish country might again arise. Why else make a person of Zerubbabel’s lineage the governor?

Zerubabbel, being of royal descent, understood the niceties, subtleties, and nuances of political intrigue. However, it is easy to be blinded by desire and ambition. The rebuilding of the Holy Temple was a potential time bomb waiting to explode. Nevertheless, Zerubbabel, and his partner in crime, the priest Joshua, had every good reason to want to see a speedy rebuilding of the Temple. That was the agenda they were pushing. There were not at all happy with those who were campaigning to stop the building of the Temple, and were probably considering all different sorts of political strategies and maneuvering to defeat those who opposed the quick restoration of the Temple. (The unspoken elephant in the room here is how many of those opposing Zerubbabel and Joshua were Jews that had not been carted off to Bablyon, but had remained behind to toil and labor for the Babylonians and then the Persians. Remember, the Babylonians sent into captivity those Israelites with worthwhile skills and abilities, along with the hoi polloi. The riff raff were left behind. There’s little doubt they were resentful of these usurping returnees. Some of those who remained in Yehud rose to prominence or financial success under Babylonian  and then Persian rule. Why should they have to give that up for the returnees? Even those whose lives were not so successful would have been jealous of and resentful of the returnees, who, by all accounts, seemed to have done well for themselves in Babylon. The psalmist may have painted dolorous pictures of the Jews exiled in Babylon weeping for dear Zion, and wondering how to sing their song in a  strange land, but the realities of the captivity were not so onerous. The exiled likely fared better than many, if not most, of those who stayed behind.

Zechariah’s message to Zerubbabel is, effectively, “whatever it is you are planning to do, don’t do it, it’s probably not a good idea. Trust in G”d, for G”d will insure the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the Jewish state.”  Knowing he had to sweeten the message in order for Zerubbabel to hear it, Zechariah, in words that come after the end of this haftarah, tells Zerubbabel that he shall be the one who will complete the work of rebuilding the Temple.

It should be noted that this haftarah is taken from a section of Zechariah, the first six chapters, which appear to be the utterings of a man who has consumed a lot of shrooms, and I don’t mean the just for eating kind. Yet later portions of Zechariah are quite clear and without the affectations of mystical visions. I have to wonder which came first – the hallucinations and visions, or the sly prophet who knew to disguise his clearly political messages in foggy visions? Angels. HaSatan. Flying scrolls. Men on horseback. Men with measuring tapes. Exchanging filthy garments for clean ones. A seven-eyed stone.  A golden, seven-branched lampstand. A flying tub. Flying chariots and mountains of copper.

Misdirection, I say. Zechariah was a magician with high skills. Couch my political advice in metaphor and simile, and disguise it with a dollop of woo-woo-ism.

The remainder of the book of Zechariah has a few more mystical and magic visions, but, for the most part, it’s pretty direct , if poetic, language. He wasn’t talking politics then, he was talking faith. Zechariah wanted to assure the people that G”d was with them, that G”d’s ancient promised to the Jewish people will be fulfilled, the Judah will be restored. Zechariah’s message is both particularistic and universalistic at the same time. The Jews will again live and rule in their land, yet other shall come to know and worship G”d.

G”d will get what G”d wants. Zerubbabel’s political maneuverings are unnecessary. Chill, Zerubbabel. The Temple will get built.

And what of our own context. What can Zechariah say to us today? If nothing else, Zechariah’s words can serve as a reminder to us to look for the political intrigue underneath the woo-woo. There’s plenty of woo-woo to go around these days. Mysticism and magic are not just the stuff of our ancestors. Oh, sure, we can bask in the light of not by might, not by power, but by G”d’s spirit alone shall we live in peace and harmony. We can all go sing kumbaya. Lovely. Until we find our pockets have been picked, our bank accounts emptied. That’s a cynical message, perhaps, to be drawn from Zechariah’s visions. Can we find something more positive and uplifting? If we understand the original context, perhaps we can. Surely, there are times, when we need to convey a message to others, yet hide it inside something else. Just as surely, there are times to warn people against rash actions, against political posturing and maneuvering, to, as they say in 12-step programs, let go and let G”d. That may really be the underlying message in the haftarah. In this age, when even the most faithful among us question whether or not G”d takes an active role in human affairs, it’s not an easy thing to ask people to do. Yet the anecdotal evidence suggests it can work. If the second part of the phrase brings you up short, just stick with the first part. Just let go. The universe, G”d, random chance, whatever will handle the rest.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

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